A Tale of Two Tortillas, Thick and Thin

Those of us who have only ever thought of flour tortillas as ultra-skinny discs with little to nothing in the way of puff have apparently been missing out on a whole other variety.
 flour tortillas

flour tortillas

Those of us who have only ever thought of flour tortillas as ultra-skinny discs, with little to nothing in the way of puff, have apparently been missing out on a whole other variety: thick, bready flour tortillas, a New Mexico regional specialty.

Author Tracie McMillan writes, on NPR’s The Salt, about the moment when, during a visit to a New Mexico restaurant, she first encountered and instantly flipped for these “thick, charmingly floppy tortillas, dotted with browned bubbles and closer in thickness to pancakes than the wan, flaccid discs” she — and the rest of us — are used to tossing in our carts at the local grocery.

Why, she wonders, had the “magic” thick tortillas — rendered puffy thanks to baking powder, perfect for soaking up regional stews, yet nearly impossible to find on the East Coast — never caught on, while the thin ones became ubiquitous? McMillan uncovers a few reasons:

1. Wheat, introduced to Mexico centuries ago by the Spanish, became plentiful in the northern Mexican state Sonora and spread to the southwestern United States. Then the people of Sonora, where tortillas are super-thin, moved to California in large numbers prior to the Mexican Revolution, early in the 20th century, and created the market for burritos and other Mexican fare made with thin tortillas.

2. Americans came to equate tortillas with the thin kind, rather than the thicker kind.

3. The thin tortillas lend themselves more easily to mass production, packaging and distribution than the thick ones do. They can be made more quickly (no waiting for the dough to rise), and the dough is easier to handle and cut into shape. They also bake more quickly and, because they are flatter, with no uneven blistery protrusions, stack more tightly — preventing air and other things from sneaking in between and spoiling them, and therefore extending their shelf life.

McMillan advocates learning to make your own thick flour tortillas or at least taking a trip to the border areas of Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, which her fellow author and taco enthusiast Gustavo Arellano calls “the motherland” for these beefy, blistered tortillas.

Sounds like advice worth taking. And if, in the meantime, you’d like to cook up some of the more familiar, thin flour tortillas most of us have come to know and love, start with Melissa d'Arabian’s Flour Tortillas or Guy Fieri’s Homemade Flour Tortillas.

Photo courtesy of iStock

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